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At a time when 90s style is being recycled as “vintage” and I Love the New Millennium… is now five years old, one might be fooled into thinking, based on its title alone, that Wayne Koestenbaum‘s new book, My 1980s and Other Essays (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is, well, a little dated. Beyond its retro cover, however, lies an incredibly timely hodge-podge of prose that expertly blends nostalgia-free self-reflections, reluctant bits of advice, and breathless love letters to idols literary, artistic, musical, and otherwise into an immensely pleasurable read.
While most of the essays reach back in time for their subject matter, the author’s most successful format is ideal for the Twitter generation: Many of the individual essays are broken into sections—some just a sentence, few much longer than a page. While this structure may sound jarring at first, it makes it so that reading Koestenbaum is like having a spitfire conversation with a friend—one who’s significantly better-read and more interesting than you and is also prone to wildly fascinating tangents (a tendency he cops to in the exuberantly eccentric piece, “Play-Doh Fun Factory Poetics”).
In You Don’t Love Me Yet, Jonathan Lethem writes, “I want what we all want… To move certain parts of the interior of myself into the exterior world, to see if they can be embraced.” Similarly, Koestenbaum’s best pieces are those that reveal something about him—and simultaneously, something about the reader.
“I was not thinking about the world. I was not thinking about history. I was thinking about my body’s small, precise, limited, hungry movement forward into a future that seemed every instant on the verge of being shut down,” he writes in the eponymous essay—and that sound you hear is every twenty-something on the planet (this one included) nodding along enthusiastically. And there’s not a single queer individual of any age who can’t relate to this relayed line from Debbie Harry: “I was a befuddled amateur, working intermittently on my heterosexuality as if it were last Sunday’s crossword puzzle, a confusing grid of boxes I’d not given up trying to fill.”
In fact, it’s installments like “The Rape of Rusty”—in which the author juxtaposes a witnessed act of corporal punishment, his own sexual awakening, and Myra Breckenridge—that put in such sharp contrast those essays that are harder to connect with. While Koestenbaum’s love for and fascination with Elizabeth Hardwick’s sentences, Frank O’Hara’s excitement, and John Shuyler’s colors is abundantly apparent, the unbroken structure and lack of autobiographical tidbits in these pieces transforms them from invigorating conversations to straightforward lectures—definitely educating, but not always engaging.
Overall, though, reading My 1980s and Other Essays is like riding a literary roller coaster: despite the occasional low, the highs are so thrillingly high that you’ll be smiling the entire way through, and end up on the other side with tiny bits of pop culture (an imagined conversation between Brigitte Bardot and Karen Kilimnik; Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s photographs; the term fag limbo) stuck in between your teeth—and, more importantly, deep inside your imagination.
My 1980s and Other Essays
By Wayne Koestenbaum
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Paperback, 978037453377, 336 pp.